CANADA/SPECIAL REPORT

A rude shock for Vander Zalm

JANE O'HARA July 11 1988
CANADA/SPECIAL REPORT

A rude shock for Vander Zalm

JANE O'HARA July 11 1988

A rude shock for Vander Zalm

When the British Columbia legislature convened at 2:05 p.m. last Tuesday, Attorney General Brian Smith took his regular seat to the immediate right of Social Credit Premier William Vander Zalm. In his hand he carried a five-page document that he had written the previous weekend. When he sat down, he placed the document on his desktop and discreetly covered it with a brown manila envelope. Smith waited for the 15-minute Question Period to conclude, then flipped up his desk microphone and rose to speak, reading from the statement he had brought into the legislature. Using forceful language, Smith launched a stinging attack on Vander Zalm and announced that he was quitting the cabinet position he had held since 1983. In the stunned silence, Vander Zalm sat with his head bowed, clearly shaken by Smith’s accusations and by his claim that he was resigning “as an act of honor.” Said Smith: “I now find that I can no longer carry out my duties, as I no longer have the support of the premier and his office.”

Smith’s bombshell resignation sent shock waves through the province and a Social Credit party that has been reeling recently under Vander Zalm’s often-controversial and quixotic leadership. After 23 months in power, Vander Zalm’s government has been beset by many problems: caucus and cabinet dissension over the abortion issue and accusations of conflict of interest arising from Vander Zalm’s interference on behalf of businessman Peter Toigo during the bidding for Vancouver’s Expo 86 Crown lands— recently sold to Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing for $320 million. On June 8, the New Democratic Party won a byelection in the Okanagan riding of Boundary-Similkameen, traditionally a Socred stronghold. The NDP victory marked the first time in 22 years that a Socred has not held the seat. Last week’s ringing denunciation of Vander Zalm by Smith was the latest crisis to befall the government. Said Martin Robin, a political scientist at Simon Fraser University: “This will not be good for Vander Zalm. His own attorney general is taking a position that the opponents of the government have held—that Vander Zalm is a premier hungry for power.”

In many ways, Smith’s resignation may have been a politically pre-emptive strike: for weeks it had been widely rumored that he was going to be removed from his position this week in a cabinet shuffle, and, rather than be fired, he

quit. In his parting shot, Smith, who finished second to Vander Zalm in the 1986 leadership race to replace retiring Premier William Bennett, declared, “I can only conclude that it is because of the way I independently carried out my duties that I am slated to be removed from my duties.” Because Smith is one of the most respected and senior cabinet ministers, second only to Minister of Economic Development Grace McCar-

thy, his criticisms of the premier carry weight. In his statement, Smith accused Vander Zalm of meddling with the attorney general’s department and of threatening its independence. For his part, Vander Zalm was quick to discount Smith’s claims. Said Vander Zalm: “Mr. Smith’s independence was at no time questioned or challenged, and to say otherwise is false.”

But Smith boldly cited two incidents that he said were examples of Vander Zalm’s interference in the attorney general’s affairs. In March,

Smith backed Vander Zalm’s abortion policy publicly but strongly disagreed with it in caucus.

That policy, which would have cut off government funding for abortions,

was struck down in the B.C. Supreme Court by Chief Justice Allan McEachern. Without consulting Vander Zalm, Smith announced that his department would not appeal the decision.

In early April, Smith again clashed with Vander Zalm over the Expo lands and the role of the premier’s friend Toigo. At the time, Vander Zalm and his aide, David Poole, tried to intercede on behalf of Toigo’s bid to purchase the en-

tire assets of the B.C. Enterprise Corp., the Crown company responsible for selling off the Expo 86 site on False Creek in Vancouver. Then, a Vancouver radio station reported that the RCMP had investigated Toigo’s affairs. Vander Zalm approached the attorney general, asked about the investigation and urged Smith to deny the report. Smith refused, telling the premier that he was not at liberty to discuss the matter. Stymied, Vander Zalm issued his own statement.

In other charges in his resignation speech, Smith said that the premier planned to split his ministry into two departments and create the position of solicitor general, reducing the responsibilities now held by the attorney general. But per-

haps the most personally irksome affront to Smith’s pride was the suspicion that Vander Zalm contemplated replacing him with a nonlawyer. Indeed, last week Vander Zalm appointed his longtime political ally and provincial secretary, Elwood Veitch, as acting attorney general. Veitch, who is jokingly referred to as the “member from Dogpatch” because of his roughhewn style, has no legal training and worked as a management consultant before entering government. Still, Veitch maintained at a news scrum after his appointment that he was perfectly suited to the job. Said Veitch: “You just need a large dollop of common sense, which I have.” Since taking power in August, 1986,

Vander Zalm’s government, like that of his predecessor, Bennett, has lurched from crisis to crisis. Critics said that Vander Zalm’s Roman Catholicism fuelled his vehement opposition to liberalized abortion laws last February, a stand that angered both his caucus and cabinet. Accused by political foes of megalomania, Vander Zalm has concentrated power in the premier’s office. His staff, which numbered 23 when Bennett left office, has swollen to 84. Recently, Vander Zalm raised eyebrows when he attacked NDP MLA Moe Sihota in the legislature. Vander Zalm rose in the house and, under the protection of legislative privilege from legal action, said that he had been informed that Sihota and his family had “ripped all sorts of people off” in a bankruptcy case. He went on to say that Sihota, a lawyer, traded political favors for business contracts. In a bizarre turn of events, Vander Zalm admitted after being questioned by reporters outside the legislature that he did

not believe the charges against Sihota but wanted to teach the NDP a lesson: he too could use unsubstantiated innuendo to discredit rivals.

In many ways, Smith’s departure is the most serious crisis to have beset the Vander Zalm government. Hoping to make a little political hay out of it, NDP Leader Michael Harcourt said that Vander Zalm had created a constitutional crisis “by accusing his former attorney general of lying.” Vander Zalm dismissed Harcourt’s argument.

Less than halfway through his fiveyear mandate, Vander Zalm does not have to call an election until October, 1991. But he is under pressure from his caucus to tone down his rhetoric. Said

Simon Fraser’s Robin: “I’m not sure he’ll get the message from this. He always thinks he’s doing the right thing.” Smith, 53, said that he plans to sit as a backbencher and will not accept another cabinet appointment, at least for the time being. He will not likely be offered one. Said Vander Zalm: “He can sit on the back benches as he’s proposing to do. That doesn’t give me any trouble.” But clearly, Smith will not be there for long. In both Victoria and Ottawa, there is speculation that he will be named to the newly created post of provincial Supreme Court justice in Victoria. There are also suggestions that he might run federally for the Conservatives in Victoria, replacing the retiring Allan McKinnon, 71. As a last resort, Smith could always practise law—a choice that is not open to the acting attorney general of British Columbia.

—JANE O'HARA in Vancouver with JOHN PIFER in Victoria